SI Vault
George Plimpton
October 29, 1956
'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea
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October 29, 1956

The Ultimate Triumph

'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea

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Under the terms of the competition the designers built two J boat hull models apiece. These, unidentified except by number, were tested in a tank at Stevens Institute of Technology. The model selected as Ranger's prototype showed the least strain gauge resistance in towing tests and to the eye created the least surface disturbance. Burgess and Stephens—who divided the designing fees equally—never told anyone, not even Vanderbilt, which of them had designed any of the four. But as soon as Vanderbilt looked at the models the secret, for him, at least, was out. He could tell from the depth of the rudders.

Boat designers usually keep the base of the rudder higher than the bottom of the keel to minimize rudder damage should the boat run aground. But in 1930, during the designing of Enterprise, Vanderbilt, after telling Starling Burgess in most positive terms that it wasn't his job to run a J boat aground, persuaded Burgess to deepen the rudder of the Enterprise enough to make it flush with the bottom of the keel and thus rid the boat of the infinitesimal drag of the eddy caused by the lack of streamlining. Burgess concurred, and his J boat designs from 1930 on show the rudder flush with the keel. The rudder was flush with the keel in two of the models tested in 1937, but not in the model that won the competition. Thus Vanderbilt knew that Olin Stephens was primarily responsible for Ranger's prototype. Naturally, as soon as the selection was made, Vanderbilt persuaded Stephens, as he had Burgess seven years before, to lengthen the rudder, the only change, insignificant though it was, in Stephens' original design.

The secret has been scrupulously kept for 19 years. During the Cup series in 1937 the press often referred to Ranger as "Burgess-designed," naturally assuming that the designer of two former Cup defenders had gone on to design a third. Olin Stephens, notoriously modest, never corrected that assumption to capitalize on the success of the "super J boat." In fact, he still insists that the model—77-C was its number—was a composite product, crediting Starling Burgess with much of the work done on it.

Ranger's first outing, in the spring of 1937, was in its own way as noteworthy as the America's against the sloop Maria. Ranger lost, not a match against another yacht, but her Duralumin mast in a near calamity that almost sent her to the bottom of the sea within four days of her launching at the Bath Iron Works in Maine.

When Ranger slid down the ways into the Kennebec River, her mast was lashed to horses set on deck, the ends of the huge 165-foot spar protruding over both stern and stem. The mast was so firmly secured that Vanderbilt almost decided to follow the safer course of not disturbing it, of towing Ranger through the Cape Cod Canal and of stepping it at the Herreshoff yard in Bristol, close by Newport, R.I. But in consideration of the Bath Iron Works' fine job, Vanderbilt felt Ranger should leave their yard a finished product. Seventy minutes after Ranger's afternoon launching, the mast had been unlashed, swung upright by a crane and lowered carefully into its step, its spreaders and standing rigging in place and adjusted before dark.

Three days later, in the late afternoon, Ranger was taken in tow by Vanderbilt's Vara bound for Newport around Cape Cod, the shelter of the canal route denied by bridge levels lower than the newly stepped mast.

Vanderbilt was unable to make the trip. The operation was under the charge of Rod Stephens, the designer's younger brother and a member of the Ranger afterguard. He was aboard Vara as the two boats headed into the Atlantic. Astern, at the end of a new 100-fathom seven-inch towline that she kept barely taut so easily was she handling the increasing swells, was Ranger, with her sailing master, Captain Monsell, and her professional crew of 26 men aboard.

That night, on a course for Pollock Rip, Ranger, despite a forestaysail set to steady her, began to roll up to 25� in the quartering sea. At midnight an ominous rattling was heard aloft in her rigging, and the watch aboard Vara noted flashlight beams playing up and down her mast. They assumed the lashing on the main halyard block had carried away and a slack wire was batting up against the mast. But they had underestimated the damage. Just before 3 a.m. a flare burned on Ranger—the signal for Vara to stop—and when Ranger had carried up alongside, a searchlight beam showed that the vertical port rod connecting the ends of the second and third spreaders was gone—either carried away or unscrewed. It meant that the top 70 feet of the mast was swinging through the great sweep of its lofty arc with no support on the port side. As Rod Stephens described it: "It looked as though almost every joint of the bar rigging had worked loose, and all was dangerously slack. The mast was alternately rolling four or five feet to port and 10 or 12 feet to starboard, fetching up with a heartbreaking thud."

A course was immediately set for the nearest port, but during the night, in an increasing sea, the mast went right on with its own destruction—the turnbuckles slowly working loose until spreader guys, bar shrouds and stays hung free in a dangling cluster, smashing up against the mast first on one side, then on the other.

Since it was inevitable that the mast would go, preparations were made. With the exception of the quartermaster at the wheel and a mate standing to weather, the crew was sent below out of danger. Poised at the foot of the two companion ladders they waited, ready to rush on deck with hacksaws and wire cutters the moment the mast fell to clear away the debris of rigging, free Ranger from the wreckage and allow the mast to sink clear before its jagged butt end punched a hole in the hull and sent Ranger to the bottom. The forestaysail remained set in the hope that it would carry the mast safely off to leeward when the time came.

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